Snooker: Snooker's civil war reaches final frontier

Williams v Griffiths is a vital match, but it's not on the green baize.
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The Independent Online
WEDNESDAY'S annual general meeting of the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association at the Strathallan Hotel, Birmingham, will determine whether snooker's bitter year-long civil war is brought to a close or whether hostilities, which threaten to bring the game to its knees, are to continue.

If anti-establishment forces, led by three former world champions, Terry Griffiths, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, obtain the five vacant seats on the board of the game's governing body, its chairman, Rex Williams, and his loyal colleague Bob Close, both of whom have another year to serve, will be outnumbered 5-2. The way would thus be clear for a vote of no- confidence from his own board, the very manner in which Williams' previous chairmanship was terminated in 1987.

If Griffiths, the chairman in waiting, establishes an administration, he would immediately set about rebuilding damaged or destroyed bridges within the game. If Williams retains control, even 4-3, strife will continue, for the wounds his regime have opened are too deep for him to heal, even were he to show a desire to do so.

Professionally familiar with all sorts of voting systems during his political career, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, the WPBSA president, can never have come across one like that which will be in operation on Wednesday. There are 14 candidates for the five vacancies but they will be voted upon singly in an order of the defending board's choosing. A variant of the thumbs-up, thumbs-down system of ancient Rome has traditionally operated for each candidate in the form of "yes" votes and "no" votes. The first five candidates whose yes votes outnumber their no votes will sit on the board with Williams and Close.

The electorate of 77 comprises players ranked in the top 64 during the past two years and members of the board, plus, to the surprise of the anti- establishment, Terry Crabb, the WPBSA's development manager, whose co- option to the board on 4 June (when an EGM resolution to remove it in its entirety failed 38-34) was not notified to the membership until the annual report was distributed on 23 November. Even then, Crabb's date of resignation was not specified and he is not standing for re-election but is entitled to vote, it seems, under a 30-day rule.

First up will be the four current board members seeking re-election, Jim Meadowcroft, who was voted in two years ago, Ray Reardon, David Taylor and Jim McMahon, who have been co-opted during the last year. The order of challengers will be Dennis Taylor, Roger Lee, Tony Knowles, Malcolm Thorne, Davis, Jason Ferguson, Mark Wildman, Mark Johnston-Allen, Griffiths and Jim Chambers.

The anti-establishment lobby are not, in the formal sense, a single ticket, and are alive to the possibility that even if the present board members are defeated, the establishment may lump the proxy votes at their disposal on candidates whom they might consider more manageable in the boardroom. Griffiths, who has pledged as one of his priorities to reform the voting system by instituting secret ballots, is aware that his candidacy might not even get out of the starting blocks.

The board stands on its record and promises great things ahead. It points to a pre-tax profit of pounds 845,164 for the year ending 30 June though Wildman, a former vice-chairman, points out this was "achieved by axing two world- ranking tournaments at a saving of about pounds 400,000 each".

The circuit's total prize money fell from pounds 5.73m to pounds 5.28m despite WPBSA's own contribution to this rising from pounds 2.01m to pounds 2.23m. Only five titled sponsors remain, four from the tobacco industry, a precarious situation given the Government's commitment to ban such sponsorship in 2001. Staff costs have risen 17 per cent to pounds 848,055. Despite the WPBSA's assets of pounds 4.56m, Wildman sees it "in the first stages of financial meltdown unless underlying problems are addressed".

In the week of the unsponsored, untelevised Irish Open, Wildman remarked: "How many unsponsored ranking events can we afford at around pounds 400,000 a time? Without the tobacco money and the BBC contract [pounds 18.8m over five years] we would be in serious trouble already. How can we be in this state when we have great viewing figures and the game is more popular than ever worldwide?"

The July 1997 appointment of Jim McKenzie as chief executive promised a new dawn of professionalism at the WPBSA with a proper business structure instead of a board of players and ex-players attempting to run a worldwide multi-million pound business.

McKenzie's dismissal on 1 December 1997 sparked the civil war, not to mention his High Court action against WPBSA, due to be heard on 11 January.

The board says that its critics, such as Ian Doyle, the game's leading manager, and myself (chiefly in Snooker Scene, which I have edited for 28 years) have exacerbated the game's internal conflicts and put sponsors off. However, instead of responding to the criticism, Doyle has instead been demonised as "wanting to take over the game". I have been deprived of my billiards playing membership without charge or trial, banned from press rooms and an attempt made to persuade BBC TV to sack me from the commentary position I have held for 20 years.

I remain objective as to the facts but no longer neutral in my sympathies in the conflict which threatens the future of the game to which I have devoted my career. What is really needed is a full-blown Sports Council inquiry into the running of WPBSA ranging back several years.